The Audacity of Certain Black Ballers

Lebron James in a Nike ad (partial)

The distance we’ve come from Jackie Robinson hawking Chock Full o’Nuts coffee in the ‘50s, and black A-list jocks hawking virtually anything under the sun today, is astounding.

It took a while, but I feel better now.

The first few days were difficult, and I was afraid I might not ever recover, and I couldn’t at all fathom how life that way would have been. I’d been through hurt and heartache before – the litany can wait until later – but this time was not like the others. This time had an especially bitter quality, as though I’d been not just defeated but broken, not just broken but embarrassed, not just embarrassed but exposed, revealed to all the world as a cheap, inadequate, self-deluded pretender to the throne.

It was an ugly moment, to be sure, when I was confronted with the truth, forced to admit that the naysayers had their point, forced to rely upon miracle after miracle to save my self-esteem. But even as a couple of miracles actually happened, I dared not admit to anyone that, in my heart of hearts, I was coming to believe that miracles alone might not be enough.

With winter’s snowy revelry receding from memory as the cruelest of jokes, I spent those first few days après le deluge vacant, emotionally hollowed out: I felt like I’d been had, hoodwinked, bamboozled. It is beyond my nature not to dream any more or ever, but somehow I knew that no matter what happened – even if by some accident of fate that dream might someday come true – that I could never, will never, ever, dream like that again.

Of course, you say, I should be used to this. But no, you never get used to this, nor do you want to. We Cleveland sports fans are forged of one part steely sturdiness, one part blind, eternal hope. We have had plenty of chances to give up these last 44, soon to be 45, years since a major pro sports team in Cleveland won a league championship, a stretch no American city has ever experienced.

Since the Browns won the National Football League title in 1964, we have lived through decades of lackluster (I’m being nice here) baseball; a legendary hockey franchise dissolved into the ether and two subsequent teams come and gone with barely a trace; a basketball franchise that lost its first 15 games, then a decade later propelled itself into disarray by trading away its draft choices (prompting a league rule forbidding such foot shooting); and a football team taken away from us in a monumentally infuriating act of corporate arrogance and personal hubris.

We Cleveland sports fans have spent our lives under the spell of endless athletic mediocrity, broken only by moments when the prize, so close we could taste it, was unceremoniously ripped away, moments whose names (Red Right 88, The Drive, The Shot, The Fumble) stand as shorthand for a city’s collective heartbreak. Yet we have not given up, and we will not. We cannot – if we could, we wouldn’t be Clevelanders, and no matter where that diaspora extends, we are still and always Clevelanders, long since adept at licking our wounds with a dash of Stadium Mustard.

What happened 30 May doesn’t have the distinction of a Wikipedia-ready moniker to share with grandkids in our dotage. The Cavaliers, possessor of the best regular season record in the 2008-09 National Basketball Association campaign, and on the verge of contending for the league crown, and thus ending our dubious streak of distinction, were bounced from the playoffs – not by a team we’d had in our radar all season long, not by Boston or Los Angeles, but by Orlando, a team seemingly designed to exploit our every weakness.

They were bigger, younger, longer, quicker, and stronger, where we were older, less able to move and react quickly, with fewer reserves and resources to respond to their challenge (spare me your Sun Belt-Rust Belt economic analogies, please). Some forecasters, most notably TNT analyst Charles Barkley, saw this beatdown coming, and I knew that Orlando had been giving us trouble for a couple of seasons. But I stubbornly clung to hope against hope, as if that alone could overcome being outworked, outshot, outmanned, outcoached, and outgunned.

Hope alone, of course, and LeBron James. For those who don’t follow basketball much, he is the most improbable package of size, skill, talent, determination and good-natured joie de vivre the game has seen in at least a generation. No one six-feet-eight and 270 pounds has the right to run as fast or leap as high as James can. Very few players have his ability or desire to make themselves better, especially when they are already among the very best.

Only a handful have been accepted as gregarious pitchmen for mainstream products like car insurance and tricked-out water, not to mention hosting Saturday Night Live. Even fewer have excelled from the moment they entered the league. But James is, in two crucial respects, head and shoulders above even that small number.

First, he has been this good since he was in high school. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, about a half-hour down the road from Cleveland, with a headline of “The Chosen One”. Even then he was NBA-ready, and absolutely no one cried or lamented any sorry state of affairs in the basketball feeder system when he went straight from high school to the pro draft (something that is no longer allowed, no matter how good you are).

Conveniently enough, he just so happened to be doing this right when the Cavaliers were absolutely awful, a long way from the early ‘90s teams that kept getting dismissed from the playoffs, beginning with The Shot, by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The year James entered the draft, the Cavaliers managed to be bad enough, and lucky enough when it counted, to land the first pick in the annual draft lottery. Only in fairy tales do things work out quite that nicely, but Cleveland was a sports town badly in need of some fairy tale-like karma for a change.

James single-handedly put my beloved hometown back on the basketball map. In his third year, Cleveland returned to the playoffs. In his fourth year, the world saw him do something we Clevelanders had long grown used to seeing on a regular basis. In a critical playoff game against Detroit, James put the team and the metropolitan region on his back, scoring 25 straight points in the fourth quarter and two overtime periods to bring home a critical win (Cleveland won that series, but got outclassed by the more experienced San Antonio Spurs in the title round – yet another Cleveland sports frustration, but one that didn’t hurt quite as much because we all just knew LeBron would take us to the promised land in short order). As the big Nike sign on the side of a downtown building proclaimed, we were all Witnesses, and proud to have the privilege.

Since then, pundits have wondered where James ranks among the current greats; that he’s going to be one of the all-time greats has been a foregone conclusion for years. This year, the conversation pretty much boiled down to who’s better, him or LA’s Kobe Bryant (James won the Most Valuable Player award, for what it’s worth, but Bryant’s Lakers won the championship, dispatching Orlando with less effort than Orlando used to dispatch the Cavs).

But sports talk what-ifs and Nike commercials with Kobe and LeBron puppets aside, here’s the other crucial respect that elevates James into even more rarefied air: Bryant never took on the collective hopes and dreams of a region which just happened to be his sports-happy, championship-starved home town. Nor did Jordan, or Julius Erving, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Bill Russell, or just about anyone else on the short list of all-time greats.

Not only has James taken on that burden, he’s done so with a smile – and a wicked array of dunks, no-look passes and long-range jumpers. He’s lived through enough frustration as a Cleveland sports fan himself, and nothing would have made him happier than to end that frustration this spring. The last player of James’ magnitude to walk down that path was Wilt Chamberlain in Philadelphia in the ‘60s, and neither pro basketball nor civic identity through athletic success was the business they both are today.

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